Solar farms a way to ease economic struggles in rural NC

Solar farms are becoming increasingly popular in North Carolina.
Solar farms are becoming increasingly popular in North Carolina. Raleigh News & Observer 2013 file photo

One of the most difficult issues facing lawmakers and rural advocates is how to bring some level of prosperity back to areas that used to have textile mills and lucrative tobacco farms. Our consumer-based economy, which generates so much revenue in densely populated regions, fails miserably where populations aren’t so dense. And the very thing that makes these areas attractive to many who live there, the lack of bustling crowds and traffic jams, is the very thing that’s killing them.

Some lawmakers see the redistribution of N.C. sales taxes as a possible solution, but it would come at the cost of destroying the budgets of communities all along the I-85/40 corridor, which will be forced to raise taxes or reduce police patrols and other needed public services. That’s not a solution, at least not one we can live with.

What many lawmakers fail to realize – one answer to the rural economic conundrum – is the proliferation of solar farms in North Carolina. Near an Interstate? Doesn’t matter. Got an airport, banking headquarters, adequate parking, retail market penetration? Doesn’t matter. The sun is shining, and that’s all that matters.

In recent testimony at the General Assembly, a farm machinery supplier was lamenting the new solar farms coming online in his area, and he complained that landowners were getting “10 times the normal rent” for their property when partnering with solar farm companies. You read it right – he’s actually angry that struggling farmers have found a crop they can afford to harvest.

I’m not a farmer myself, but several of my extended family members are. Aside from bad weather and hungry bugs, there are two main issues that are killing traditional farms. The first has to do with distribution and the growing monsters of large agribusiness concerns. A farmer these days either joins, turning his crop over to someone else to market and receiving an ever-shrinking piece of the action, or he doesn’t join and soon can’t sell his crop to anyone. Slow death vs. fast death, it comes to the same in the end.

The other major issue farmers face is debt. Even if they own the land outright, it takes machinery to produce crops. You know, like the guy I mentioned before sells to farmers. You can go to his website and price machines, which I did. His top-of-the-line tractor, even without all the bells and whistles, is over a half million dollars. Just a tractor, which is only one of the half-dozen pieces of machinery farmers need.

That’s a life-long debt for a farming family, and in way too many cases, that debt eventually crushes them, and they end up not even owning that land anymore. It’s a heartbreaking scenario, but there is light at the end of that particular tunnel – sunlight, which can be harvested just like corn or alfalfa.

If lawmakers truly want to help rural landowners and the townships they call home, they will leave in place the policies that have already sent solar farms to many of these distressed areas.

Steve Harrison is the senior administrator at the progressive website BlueNC.